Shutter Island can be explained with one word: nightmarish. Make no bones about it, it’s a film where the ending can be deciphered rather quickly – from the trailer even – and yet, it’s fascinating to watch the events unfold, if only to see how off-kilter the pieces of this filmic puzzle are. The conclusion is obvious, but watching a master craftsman pick and choose which clues to show and how is the real beauty of Scorsese’s latest foray into psychological terror.
The mood is set from the first shots as Ashecliffe – an asylum for the criminally insane – is shown through Robert Richardson’s cinematography as more of a character than a location. Between the moody lighting and the foreboding sense of dread that permeates from almost every frame, Richardson’s work proves about as integral to the atmosphere and storytelling of Shutter Island as Scorsese’s direction, DiCaprio’s acting chops and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay – all exemplary, I might add.
Ashecliffe might be the more obvious “haunted house” of the film but there is a second in DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall sent to the asylum, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to look for an inmate that has mysteriously vanished into thin air. Of course, nothing is what it seems at Ashecliffe, and the patients and doctors (with excellently evil performances by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) seem to be harboring a giant secret. After the initial setup, the film really starts getting into nightmare territory, offering up a disorienting reality as seen through Teddy’s eyes. Between the actual nightmares – ranging from his time liberating Dachau to his wife’s demise at the hands of an arsonist – and the waking nightmares, Teddy’s down and out Marshall is a sight to behold; a man who has ulterior motives for being on the island, and one who’s willing to take risks and a beating to get the truth. He’s not tough, he’s strong-willed. His inner turmoil over the past is manifested quite horrifically in island locales, whether it be the cold, harsh shores or the rusty, metal catwalks of the block reserved for the asylum’s most heinous offenders. And really, above all else, this is a film about dealing with guilt and coming to terms with reality, making the psychological and emotional approach Scorsese is known for the perfect fit for the material.
While Shutter Island is certainly DiCaprio’s show to steal, the aforementioned performances and turns from Ted Levine as a warden, Michelle Williams as a ghostly dead wife, and Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas as crazed inmates are positively chilling. The only performance that felt shafted in the whole affair was Ruffalo’s and it’s not because he was bad (quite the opposite, actually), he just wasn’t given much to do aside from being a sidekick.
Minor Spoilers Ahead
Shutter Island is an almost flawless experience up until the end, and it’s not even because the reveal is obvious; it’s the way it’s overexplained that’s the problem. Certainly, this is a film that’s about the ride and not so much the climax, as clues are littered about the entire film which clearly hint at the ending. But having a character pull out a chalkboard to explain certain details for the benefit of the audience and the characters involved seems a bit desperate. However, the greater concern generates from the fact that after these certain details are examined, we watch them play out in flashbacks, which kind of negates the whole “who’s recollection of reality is factual?” angle that could have made the film that much greater, if only because of the intense discussions that could have followed.
End Of Spoilers
The Blu-Ray disc boasts an incredible 1080p transfer, which is very typical of Paramount’s exemplary track record. The neo-noir imagery of the film is captured perfectly, with some of the best black levels around. Even in the darkness of the asylum and the dark and stormy nights seen on the island, detail is through the roof. Daytime scenes are also well represented, showing deep, rich colors. The only drawback is some minor, minor banding issues. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack contained on the disc is as top-notch as the visual presentation, showcasing multiples layers through the film. Sound effects (bird chirping, trees swaying, thunderstorms brewing, etc.) are seamlessly integrated with the score, with neither overpowering each other. The scene where Daniels and Aule traverse the halls of a cell block during the blackout is particularly stunning, really putting viewers in the middle of the insanity occurring onscreen. Dialogue is drowned out something during certain sequences – more so during the first half of the film – but in the end, it really isn’t a huge deal.
Shutter Island might not even be considered a “classic” Scorsese but it is a damn fine example of a master hard at work. It’s a fantastic homage to Val Lewton B-movies (Bedlam and a few others came to mind while viewing it) and certainly an experience that’s worth having a second time at the least. The more I think about the parts that make up the whole, the more I really appreciate what Scorsese and Co. were trying to accomplish. If you can appreciate the nightmarish, gothic charms of the classic horror films of yesterday, you will no doubt be entranced by the mystery surrounding Shutter Island and its inhabitants.
Behind The Shutters (17:10) – A brief look at the creation of the actual story, which was written by Dennis Lehane (Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River). It features interviews with the Lehane, Scorsese, and most of the major players in the film. A typical behind-the-scenes back-patting affair, with everyone gushing about how marvelous the story is and how great Scorsese is – neither of which I can really disagree with.
Into The Lighthouse (21:11) – The better of the two featurettes on the disc, this one explores the psychiatric practices and procedures seen in the film. It contains the normal cast and crew interviews, but the real focus and interesting aspect of this special feature is Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatric consultant on the film. Having worked at an asylum in the past, he gave the set designers and cast an idea of what it was like to have worked somewhere similar to Ashecliffe during the 70’s – including a look at the sort of primitive procedures they used, which are presented via video clips and photos.
Film Score: 4/5